The fastest, easiest way to improve writing

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Did you get scared off of plagiarizing when you were in high school? Certain kinds of copying are certainly not allowed. But other kinds of imitation not only aren’t illegal — they also make a lot of sense! Read on to learn about the fastest way to improve writing.

I just escaped from a meeting in which my writing was criticized. Not rudely and not wrongly. I wasn’t even hurt — mainly because I recognized the complaints were about a type of writing I’d never done before.

One of my clients has recently started producing videos and it’s my job to help. Most of the stuff I’m pretty good at — organizing, scheduling, lining up guests, making sure everyone stays on topic.

And what am I worst at? You guessed it — the writing. Even though I’m a professional wordsmith. This is not because I’m an incompetent writer. It’s because I’ve never written for video before.

Fortunately, for my client, these videos require very little actual writing. And fortunately, for me, the guys running the cameras are both knowledgeable and patient.

Last time, we rewrote on the fly — on the day of filming. This time we started rewriting the day before (ah, the benefits of planning ahead!) But I realized with horror that I’d still failed to do the one basic thing that writers should always accomplish.

I hadn’t identified a good role model. That is to say, I hadn’t found any examples of well-written videos and copied them.

I seldom watch TV news (I’m still a newspaper junkie at heart) so I’ve never absorbed the rhythms and styles of good video writing. As a result, my work is good for print, and even half-decent for speeches, but it’s not so good for video.

As soon as one of the camera guys started reading my words aloud I realized how wooden and stilted they sounded. “Why don’t you think about asking more questions,” the guy suggested — kindly, I thought.

Excellent question! Questions help engage and draw in the viewer. They can be useful in for-print writing, but I think they probably qualify as essential for video.

Another thing I noticed: Using short words and short sentences is important for print — but it’s doubly, maybe even triply so for the spoken word. The same thing applies to concrete versus abstract words. (Say “money” instead of “income” or “economy,” if you can.)

So, my homework tonight is to tape a news program and then transcribe some of the reporter’s words. I’ll pick the text that I find most appealing and then stick it under a microscope to examine what writing techniques they used to make it interesting and engaging.

I’m frequently astonished by the number of people who never think to improve writing in this way themselves. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing — newsletters, annual reports, books, speeches — having a model that achieves exactly what you aspire to accomplish will be infinitely helpful.

Mentoring, from other good writers — even if the writers aren’t there to guide you themselves, even if the writers aren’t alive — is one of the fastest, most effective ways to improve writing. It’s also a heck of a good way to beat writer’s block.

(As an aside, let me say that if you want to write a book, finding a book that you can imitate — not in content, but in terms of structure, style and format — is absolutely essential, particularly if you’ve never written a book before.)

I’m astonished that I forgot about this technique myself! But because I forgot, you don’t have to. Simply remember: Copying a style is not plagiarism. Imitating excellence is not cheating.

It’s always worth taking the time to find a good model.

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